PORTLAND - Five minutes into the third quarter, the Utah Jazz had every reason to quit on Sunday night's game at the Rose Garden. LaMarcus Aldridge's dunk capped a 14-0 run that pushed the Portland Trail Blazers' lead to 25. The Jazz, already playing without Mehmet Okur after Okur's wife gave birth, lost Andrei Kirilenko during the first half to back spasms, further depleting the Utah bench. And the Jazz was staring down the second half of a back-to-back set Monday night against Atlanta.
Utah had one big reason not to quit, that being the stubbornness of coach Jerry Sloan and their stars. By clamping down defensively and allowing the Blazers just 25 points over the next 24 minutes, the Jazz rallied to make a game of it. And when Carlos Boozer grabbed his career-high-tying 21st rebound and put it back up and in, Utah forced overtime. There, the Jazz held Portland scoreless for more than four minutes to steal a victory in the most improbable of fashions.
I was already a believer in Utah, and ultimately the Jazz's dominant victory here on Jan. 27 was a more significant indicator that Utah is a legitimate contender to win it all. Still, being able to persevere through that kind of adversity will come in handy for Utah at some point in the postseason. It's what has made the difference for Sloan during his unparalleled tenure at the helm in Salt Lake City. Sloan knows his Xs & Os, but so do lots of coaches. He gets the most out of his players and believes in his system, but he's not alone there. It is the sheer strength of Sloan's personality that makes him so unique and such a legend.
With that, five thoughts from the game.
1. Roy Looks (Mostly) Healthy
Before last night's collapse, the main source of angst in the Willamette Valley had surely been the health of star guard Brandon Roy, who sounded an ominous note about his strained right hamstring after making his return to the lineup on Tuesday. Roy was limited again in Friday's loss to Boston. He's still certainly not 100 percent. He's spending his time on the bench trying to keep his hamstring warm on the exercise bike and in danger of depleting Portland's supply of ice.
After an up-and-down first half, however, Roy mostly looked like himself down the stretch. He was able to gut out 34-plus minutes, and the Blazers' offense down the stretch was as Roy-heavy as ever. He forced his way to the offensive line for six free throws in a row late in the fourth quarter and made two critical athletic plays--tapping the ball off the rim as Utah looked certain to finish a second chance during the fourth quarter, then exploding off the line to rebound his own missed free throw and draw a foul with 2:42 to play.
As painful as this loss was for Portland, Roy's long-term health is the far bigger concern for the Blazers' postseason future.
2. Deron the Defender
The exceptions to Roy's ability to control the game down the stretch are worth noting, because they almost universally came when he was matched up against Deron Williams. Sloan went to the matchup repeatedly when Nate McMillan subbed out Andre Miller (off of whom the Jazz was doubling Roy, daring Miller to beat them) in favor of Rudy Fernandez, putting Roy at the point. I've never thought of Williams as much of a defender, but he impressed me by using his strength to keep Roy from getting where he wanted to go on the floor. I don't have the exact numbers, but my guess would be that Roy missed all four shots he attempted against Williams, including a three that would have tied the game in the closing seconds of overtime. Obviously Williams can't expend that kind of energy on defense on a regular basis with everything he means to the Utah defense, but that ability is evidently there when needed.
3. Camby Shows His Stuff
In his second game in a Portland uniform, center Marcus Camby showed why the Blazers added him in a trade last week. Camby was a huge factor on the glass, finishing with 18 rebounds--including eight of Portland's 21 on the offensive glass. His ability to tap the ball back out to teammates (something he tried to do even once when he had no defender around him and had the chance to cleanly secure the ball) returned a dimension to a Blazers offense that has been short on second chances without offensive-rebounding dynamos Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla.
Likewise, Camby offered production missing without Oden and Przybilla at the defensive end, where Camby blocked four shots, mostly as a weak-side defender coming in to swipe at Boozer's shot attempts. While Camby was not quite as stout a defensive anchor in the paint in this matchup as I had anticipated, he did a better than expected job of coming out to defend Paul Millsap on the perimeter. Overall, Portland's defense was much more effective than in the last two matchups against Utah. At the same time, Camby's 1-of-7 shooting was something of a drain on the offensive end.
4. Unexpected Production from Fesenko
Playing without Kirilenko and Okur significantly altered the Jazz's frontcourt rotation. Millsap is more than capable of stepping in as a starter, but Utah was left with only little-used Kyrylo Fesenko as a reserve post for the second half. Fesenko was then forced to play crucial minutes when Millsap got in foul trouble and ultimately fouled out with 2:10 to play. Give the Ukrainian 7-footer credit for offering effective play the rest of the way, including a couple of big scores and a crucial block. He demonstrated agility in contesting a Rudy Fernandez shot at the rim when Fernandez looked to have a sure layup and added six rebounds. Playing at least 20 minutes in a game for just the third time in his career, Fesenko was surely a factor in the Jazz's win.
5. Replacing the Departed
The Blazers had to give up backup point guard Steve Blake to make the trade with the L.A. Clippers for Camby, while Utah traded away starting shooting guard Ronnie Brewer at the deadline for a future first-round pick and luxury-tax savings. For Portland, the performance of Jerryd Bayless as a point guard will be important the rest of the season. Bayless was effective in the first half, handing out a pair of assists as a part of running the offense. But his second-half stint was cut short after a pair of bad shot attempts, and Miller had to come back more quickly than McMillan would have liked. Bayless played just 10 minutes total, and the Blazers are going to need more from that to rest Miller.
On the other side, I can't say the Jazz really seemed to miss Ronnie Brewer, even with Kirilenko's absence opening up more minutes on the wings. Wesley Matthews was solid in his 33 minutes of action, and Kyle Korver stepped in at the three to offer perimeter shooting down the stretch. Korver's three-pointer from the right wing brought the Jazz within three at the 2:27 mark and paved the way for Utah to force overtime.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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